Sacha played every minute of every game his freshman year as an attacking central midfielder. He finished second on the team in points, with 6 assists and 4 goals and was just one of three freshman to earn all-conference honors in the Big East. “I went there thinking I can get a good education because of soccer,” Sacha says. “But after my first month at Seton Hall, I was back to saying I want to play pro again. I was back on track with my original dream.”
If this was basketball or American football, his coaching worries and any self-doubt would be gone for a few years; barring injury he’d be on a linear track to the professional ranks. But for soccer’s most driven, there’s another dream: to play for the national team.
After his freshman year Sacha finally got the call from U-20’s coach Thomas Rongen. “He called me one morning at 6:30am,” Sacha says. “He was like, ‘Yeah, so you are going to Northern Ireland with us next week.’ It was the sweetest thing ever. All of my friends from Southern California, from ODP and stuff, had all played for the national team at some point. And always had the sweetest Nike gear. Greg Dalby, Ian Etherington, Kiel McClung, Taylor Canel. Three of those four aren’t even playing right now, but I was so jealous of them. I just wanted to be on the national team.”
Sacha started every game for Rongen’s team (playing in a 4-4-2 formation as the attacking midfielder) en route to a sixth place finish at the 2004 Milk Cup. For the first time the lanky kid was in a good place to grow. Then Rongen took a job at Chivas USA. “Sigi Schmid took over,” Sacha says, “And I was like, ugh, I was playing really well for Thomas, he started me in a bunch of games, but now I had to prove myself all over again.”
Sophomore year Sacha won NCAA Division I First-Team All-America honors after being reunited with Gordon, who transferred from Fullerton to Seton Hall. With thoughts of turning pro squelched by his coach and family (“For $30,000, it’s not worth it”), the following summer he turned his attention back to the national team. Sigi Schmid held his first camp and brought Sacha in, to that camp and every U-20 camp after that. So maybe this one would work out too. After two prominent coaches had figured out and unleashed Sacha’s talents, perhaps the coaching community at large was starting to come around to the midfielder’s worth?
“Sigi had no idea what to do with Sacha,” Slavko says. “He played him in defense.”
Sacha made the squad for the Under-20 World Cup in Holland. The team played a 4-2-4 or a 4-2-3-1 with Sacha coming off the bench as one of two holding midfielders. The U.S. won the first game against Argentina—Sacha didn’t play. They tied Germany—he didn’t play in that one either. Already qualified for the next round, Sacha started against Egypt. He thought he played well but got demoted back to a substitute role the following game against Italy. He was first off the bench, placed in a defensive midfield role. “It didn’t go so well,” Sacha says. “I was a bench guy who didn’t play that much. Sigi Schmid threw me into the game; we were losing 2-1 to Italy. I tried to block a cross and it went into my own net.
“The whole experience was weird. But I always looked at Clint [Dempsey], when he first came into MLS. He barely played at all at his U-20 World Cup either. And I was like, what’s going on? This dude is killing it in MLS as a rookie and last year he couldn’t play on the U-20’s? So that always gave me confidence when I wasn’t playing on the U-20’s—well if Clint didn’t play and he’s ballin, at least I think I can still play in MLS and do well.”
“[Sigi Schmid] played him in the wrong position,” Slavko says. “But what can you do? Those are the coach’s choices. I was sitting together with Manny watching, and he said, ‘What the hell is he doing?’”
“He was more of an attacking midfielder,” Schmid tells me, recalling his time as Sacha’s coach and Slavko’s target. “And that’s what we brought him in as, but as time went on we saw that he had such a good work rate that he could be a box to box midfielder as well for us. So he filled both of those roles. What do I say? Let me just put it like this. Obviously Slavko can have his feelings at the end of the day. Sacha hadn’t been called in to any national team camp until I called him in, so whether it was to play a more offensive role or whether he had to adapt into a more defensive role, I think the most important thing is that he was a member of the Under-20 team.”
Schmid forgot about Sacha’s short stint under Thomas Rongen, but makes a point nonetheless. At some point, you’re proud to just be included on a national team roster and you work your ass off to provide whatever is asked of you. But this is the imperfect world of sports, of soccer—perhaps the most ambiguous of them all when it comes to assigning a player’s worth on the free form field with ten others—and that conversation will never stop.
“We thought for our [Seton Hall] team and for him,” Schellscheidt says, “it was best to have Sacha in more of a free role. Because the more he was on the ball, the better off he was. Because I always think of him as a player who makes everyone around him better. That’s the biggest compliment I can give a player. It’s no coincidence he set the single season assist record here and had a lot of goals. Usually it’s one or the other, but Sacha could do both.
“Now Sigi’s record speaks for itself. But everyone may like a different player a little bit more. So, me watching that team, they had a bit of an athletic appearance. I thought there were players out there that maybe—it’s a matter of opinion—that didn’t belong on the field. For me, I thought Sacha belonged on the field. From my eyes, let’s put it that way. I don’t know the details, and you’ve got to be careful making comments when you don’t see things up close, but a few guys on that roster I would have had in the line-up a bit more.”
But Schellscheidt admits Sacha needed to work on his defense, a critical opinion which also stands as reference to the American game. A game that might not be up to Sacha’s level. So is he good enough or not? I ask Schellscheidt, if on the growth curve of American soccer, as the national program pushes for victories, does Sacha’s game find itself ahead of his time? “Yes, you could say that,” Schellscheidt says. “If the league were able to get some more good players in here that bring the level up, it would be better for Sacha.”
Somewhere Jose Francisco Torres is nodding, thankful he at least plays for a good team in a league that is not MLS. Somewhere Clint Dempsey thinks about whether or not to hide his bag of tricks when going out to fight another day on the English pitch. If Sacha played in France or Spain, the two nations whose leagues everyone I spoke to thinks he would fit best, Sacha’s story might be different. Then again, somewhere Freddy Adu is thinking that he’d trade boots (though probably not bank accounts) with Sacha in a heartbeat.
Reunited at Seton Hall
The 2005 college season was another solid one for Sacha. He made third team All America, was Big East Offensive Player of the Year, and set the single season assist record with 15. It was time to turn pro. Selected as a Generation Adidas player, Sacha was now sure to see more money in MLS, but, as the young player still wondered with every new team, what would MLS see in him?
But first you get the money.
MLS offered a 4-year and a 5-year contract. The 4-year was less money each year, so it seemed like a no-brainer to Sacha at the time to take the guaranteed money, because you just didn’t know. Going into MLS, Sacha could have been drafted by the Galaxy, who had just won the championship. Sacha probably would have then rode their bench his rookie season. So you take the guaranteed money. “Luckily I ended up at Chivas,” Sacha says. “And played a lot. I just needed to get my money back then, so I took the three years guaranteed with two option years. My first year in the league I was guaranteed like $85,000, which was a lot of money for me. You took it because you didn’t know what your future was. I could have stayed in college another year, went into the draft, and made like $35,000 a year without Generation Adidas. Back then, it was get the money and then we’ll see.”
“I wanted him to stay in college,” Slavko says. “But he showed me his math. I said, damn, these people in MLS are really smart, but they do get you by the balls.”
Signed before the draft, it was just a matter of where he would go. Marvell Wynne went 1st and Mehdi Ballouchy second. Sigi Schmid, now coaching at Columbus had the third pick. Kansas City had the 4th, and Chivas 5.
“Sigi wanted to draft him,” Slavko says. “But I said you don’t touch him after the U-20 World Cup. Play him in defense! If Sacha went to Sigi, you wouldn’t be here right now talking to us. No one would be here.”
“We needed a forward,” Sigi Schmid says about his mentality going into the draft with Columbus. “That is where our attention was at the time. Also, I think Slavko might have had a heart attack if I had picked up Sacha, even though I think Sacha would have done very well for us. We would have loved to have had him. Under the old coaching regime there [at ChivasUSA], there was talk about moving him, and we were one of the teams that was interested. So, everything becomes relative. You take advantage of opportunities that present themselves to you.”
Columbus drafted Jason Garey. Yura Movsisyan was next in line on several teams’ wish lists. One of those teams hoping he would fall was thought to be Chivas. But Yura went fourth to KC, leaving Bob Bradley to take Sacha at five. Some say Bradley didn’t want Sacha, and the coach’s penchant toward defensive tactics at Princeton, the Metrostars, Chivas, and now the national team, don’t hurt those rumors. But Bradley was friendly with Manny Schellscheidt and attended Seton Hall games. Bradley’s Metrostars even played Seton Hall a few times when Sacha was there, so it can’t be said he didn’t know what he was getting with Sacha.
Jesse Marsch, 14-year MLS veteran and now USMNT assistant coach, remembers it slightly differently. Marsch was new to Chivas that year, but not to Bob Bradley, whom the aggressive midfielder had won a MLS Cup with in Chicago. “Bob had mentioned going into the draft,” Marsch says, “that Sacha was a guy they were looking at. I knew Bob had thought highly of Yura going into it, and was looking to see if that person could fit into the mix, but he also mentioned Sacha in that same breath. At the time Bob was looking to pick up some building blocks and both of those guys were high on the list.”
If it wasn’t the perfect system, Chivas USA turned out to be perhaps the perfect place for Sacha, who, whatever the rumors said, was happy to be playing for a coach with a reputation of giving rookies opportunities to play. Sacha rented a tiny two-bedroom apartment a few blocks from the ocean and near his hometown, in Redondo Beach, with Seton Hall and Chivas teammate Jason Hernandez. They got a hand-me-down futon from teammate Brian Dunseth, but Sacha went out and bought a 60-inch flatscreen TV. With the U-23 national team disbanded during an off year in the Olympic cycle, and Sacha far from Bruce Arena’s radar for the 2006 World Cup, Sacha could focus on MLS with an immediate chance to contribute on a team looking to get past the expansion label.
And he did, starting 31 games and tallying seven assists, the most among MLS rookies. He was a finalist for Rookie of the Year, playing in the central midfield with Marsch, for a coach that preached defense.
“I was incredibly impressed with his vision,” Dunseth, now an analyst for Fox Soccer Channel, says of his first impressions of Sacha. “He has that Clint Mathis vision where he is almost taking snapshots of what is going on around him on the field without really having to look. My biggest curiosity for him at the time was, I wonder what position he will end up playing. Because he is not the fastest player in the world, but he has a great engine on him; he’s always fit; it seemed he never got tired, and when you have the ability to keep possession and rarely lose it, I thought if this kid could find the right position and the right team, he could have a very, very strong career. And this was before real preseason had even started his rookie season.”
Bradley told Marsch that Sacha was his project. The coach recognized his skill and ease with the ball but wanted Marsch to concentrate on his understanding defensive responsibilities on both sides of the ball. “When I talked to Sacha about these things,” Marsch says, “his eagerness to learn overwhelmed me. He wanted to get better. He wanted to know what I thought. It was fun to work with him and play with him. He almost won rookie of the year, which is no small feat playing in a new league for a new team in the central midfield.”
Chivas assistant coach Preki took the helm in 2007 after Bradley bolted for the national team. When Paulo Nagamura joined the team early in the season, Sacha slid out on the wing, the thought being to free him up offensively and remove some of the central and defensive responsibilities. Sacha started every game he appeared in that season and put up four goals towards the team’s first conference title. His 13 assists were good enough for third in the league. Two years in MLS, everybody could now see Sacha’s skill, even on a team set on winning the defensive war before running an attack. With both Olympic and World Cup 2010 qualifying approaching, it was setting up to be Sacha’s national coming out party.
Though he earned his first cap (and assist) for the senior side under Bradley in June of 2007 against China and was part of a B-team sent to the 2007 Copa America in Venezuela, Sacha’s former coach didn’t call him into the more important tournament of the year, the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which included an invite to the 2009 Confederations Cup for the winner. If Bradley indeed wanted to draft Sacha in 2006, he had but a passing interest in him for the national team in 2007. There’s club and then there’s country and then there’s the senior men’s team.
The U-23 team became Sacha’s focus. A lifelong dream of his since becoming fascinated with Michael Johnson at the 1996 Summer Games, the Olympics brought all the necessary pieces together: a coach, Peter Nowak, that understood how to use him, players that were up to his ability level, and a tournament he was highly motivated to play in at a time when he was playing his best soccer. Sacha occasionally captained the team.
In the midst of his third MLS campaign, in which he was named to the MLS All-Star team, Sacha became the poster boy for Team USA in a “Got Milk?” marketing campaign and a media darling for an Olympic press core forced with presuming breakout stars. Some of the American soccer coaching community may have missed him, but the marketers picked this one right.
Picked right even if not spelled right.
Here is part 4.
Check back for following installments in the coming days leading up to the May 25th USMNT v Czech Republic match, in which Sacha will once again be fighting for his soccer life in what could be the most important game thus far in his career.
Banner image of Sacha Kljestan photographed by Ben Hooper for TIAS.
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